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Cloud federation primer: The coming Intercloud

Providing cloud services is often a delicate balancing act. Cloud providers must maximize resource utilization and minimize power consumption while satisfying customer service-level agreements (SLAs).  For small and midsized providers that face infrastructure constraints, scaling issues and tight budgets, this balancing act is daunting, especially when competing with market behemoths like Amazon.

With cloud federation, providers can share resources with peers to gain economic advantages. Cloud federation allows cloud providers to use outside resources when demand outstrips supply, and to rent out resources when other providers need to shed load. It also allows providers to expand their geographic footprints without deploying their own computing resources worldwide.

Cloud federation: The path to an “Intercloud”

Much like the Internet is a network of networks, cloud federation could eventually enable an “Intercloud,” or a “cloud of clouds,” as Wired founding executive editor Kevin Kelly once coined the term. Akin to the electrical grid, in which a utility is shared based on supply and demand, the Intercloud would be a mesh of cloud computing resources owned by multiple parties and interconnected and shared via open standards. The realization of the Intercloud vision is years away, but cloud federation and early peering relationships among providers established for compelling economic reasons are steps toward this vision.

Cloud federation enables cloud service providers to: 

  • Maximize profit by servicing more customers using existing infrastructure, while still meeting SLAs by balancing load across fellow service providers during demand spikes.
  • Generate additional revenue from existing customers by selling services beyond the service provider’s own geographic footprint.
  • Generate new revenue from other service providers by renting unused capacity on an as-needed basis.

Technical and organizational challenges to cloud federation

There are plenty of formidable challenges inherent in cloud federation. On the operational side, it is difficult to deploy and migrate virtual machines anywhere in the world flexibly and quickly. It is hard enough to do this within a single service provider, let alone among service providers. And it is challenging for service providers to automatically determine which load to share and how to share it.

Both open source and proprietary software solutions have emerged to address some of the operational challenges of cloud federation. The open source OpenStack initiative, launched by Rackspace Hosting and NASA, has developed software and standards for large-scale deployments of automatically provisioned virtual compute instances that are applicable in a cloud federation environment. The aim of the OpenStack project is to enable any organization to create and offer cloud computing services running on standard hardware. CA offers 3Tera AppLogic, a proprietary, turnkey system that converts arrays of servers into virtualized resource pools.

On the cloud federation management side, many unmet challenges remain. The industry must find ways to dynamically coordinate service load among cloud service providers to determine where best to host for optimal end-user performance. It must establish a common authentication scheme. Cloud providers also need a way to assure data and application security and secure connectivity between clouds. Finally, cloud federation requires a reconciliation and billing system that can properly bill and compensate participating cloud service providers.

Individual cloud providers can work out some of these cloud federation management challenges on a case-by-case basis, but this will require a lot of work on the part of service providers, vendors and partners.

Realizing the Intercloud vision -- where cloud federation is a streamlined process for providers and customers -- will require a much more complex, long-term and collaborative effort.  For example, an Intercloud system architecture encompassing an array of functions and players that do not exist today was described in a recent paper on cloud computing by the scholars Rajkumar Buyya, Rajiv Ranjan and Rodrigo Calheiros at the University of Melbourne and the University of New South Wales in Australia. Their proposed architecture includes a cloud exchange comprised of directory, auctioneer and financial settlement functions; cloud coordinators to handle scheduling and resource allocation; and cloud brokers to negotiate with cloud coordinators for resource allocation that meets users’ QoS needs. Within each of the functions are many sub-functions, which also do not yet exist. This academic paper is but one of many recently published on the subject, each proposing a different approach. Take your pick.

What cloud federation solutions can vendors offer today?

Some cloud federation solutions on the market show promise. For example, German cloud service provider ScaleUp Technologies announced in January that its ScaleUp Cloud Management Platform for provisioning and managing technical aspects of cloud service delivery now supports federated environments. A set of cloud service management solutions from ComputeNext promises to “match resources across heterogeneous data center environments and seamlessly federate workloads so that service providers can take the best workload (based on capacity and margin) for their businesses and continue to offer the best services to their customers.”

Some common authentication solutions for cloud federation have also emerged. The SinglePoint Trust Cloud™ solution from Symplified, for instance, is an identity access management service designed for cloud federation environments. Radiant Logic’s RadiantOne Cloud Federation Service “enables a secure federated infrastructure by supporting claims generation for all uses in diverse and disparate data stores.” RSA has jumped into the fray with RSA Cloud Trust Authority, which provides cloud-based services for identity, information and infrastructure cloud security to secure interaction among cloud service providers. Microsoft is pushing Active Directory Federation Services as the foundation for identity in cloud computing.

Although Cisco Systems has given lip service to promoting cloud federation and is using the term Intercloud, thus far it does not have a suite of offerings specifically positioned to support it.

Ecosystem needs standards for cloud federation

The time is now for standards bodies and industry consortia to develop both an overarching architecture and individual technology standards to support cloud federation. Identifying and agreeing upon the right set of functions, and putting the individual pieces of the puzzle into place will not be quick or easy, but it will be worth the effort -- and the process opens up the opportunity for tremendous innovation and economic opportunity for savvy participants.

Rebecca Wetzel is a principal with NetForecast and is also president of the marketing consulting firm, Wetzel Consulting LLC. She provides data communications industry insight and helps vendors and service providers develop and deploy successful marketing strategies.


This was first published in October 2011

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